Welcome back, ladies and germs, to my three-part analysis of John Byrne's tenure on Incredible Hulk. During this entry, I'll break down the actual run-that-was, issue-by-issue, adding my own observations while comparing against the narrative that the creator stated during his interview with Peter Sanderson in 1985's Amazing Heroes magazine. I'll frequently be quoting directly from the article in question. You can follow along with me through these eight issues by picking up a copy of Hulk Visionaries: John Byrne Vol. 1, still available from Marvel Comics. If your local comic shop doesn't have it, you can find one on amazon.com or my preferred online haunt, InStockTrades.com.Ready? Onward!
The Hulk we see in the first story (#314, the only issue of the run that features Byrne's planned three-chapter structure) is, on the surface, the same savage incarnation as had appeared in the last half of Mantlo's Crossroads arc and throughout virtually every Hulk story between 1966 and 1982. However, that incarnation took a darker turn following Nightmare's having attacked Banner's dreams and waking him, for the first time seeming more malevolent than merely childlike. This characterization continues into Byrne's run, with the Hulk brutally killing a deer without thinking twice. This Hulk is scary in ways he hadn't been since the early issues. During a battle at Desert Base, he doesn't just deny that he and Banner are one and the same; he grows angrier and stronger with each dig Doc Samson makes. However, Banner himself manifests differently this time, making the Hulk hallucinate old foes until he tumbles to the fact, counting on him to believe Samson, too, is a phantom, so that the psychiatrist-cum-hero can deliver a sucker punch to knock him out.
"Freedom" in the next issue (#315) advances the storyline while bringing forth a number of older elements from the series, beginning with the opening dream sequence based in the bunker Banner used to contain the Hulk during that first series when he transformed at night. It's not nightfall, but daylight, and the Hulk talks in his current cadence. Instead of Rick outside the chamber, however, it is Banner, dressed in an untattered variant of the same clothing the Hulk wears. The monster taunts Banner: "You cannot escape Hulk! Wherever you go, Hulk will follow. [...] Hulk is not a monster, not a demon you can run and hide from! Hulk is you! Hulk is your own dark thoughts...your anger, your rage!" The tableau climaxes with Banner getting further and further away from the Hulk, until the monster admits, "Banner is...gone...? And Hulk...cannot...think..." as at the same time, in the real world, Doc Samson's nutrient bath has succeeded in separating man from monster, Banner from Hulk.
Such separation has been achieved once before in Incredible Hulk #130-131, where Raoul Stoddard used the Gammatron and ended up splitting the two. However, at that time the Hulk was just as intelligent after the split as before, whereas this time, not only would both beings be incapacitated, traumatized by the initial separation event, but also this Hulk would take on the traits of the mindless Hulk incarnation first seen in Incredible Hulk #299 whom Bill Mantlo ostensibly got rid of midway through the Crossroads story. And for one wishing to move back to the original incarnation, Byrne curiously spent a lot of time with this version of the character. In fact, this Hulk was even less human than Mantlo's iteration. Outside of the Marvel Fanfare story, which I'll discuss later, this Hulk's only impetuses are destruction and rage. More than any scenario concocted before or since, this Hulk represents Banner's nightmare scenario: a behemoth with no regard for property or life, possessed of incalculable strength, durability and endurance, unable to be caged or to transform back to a human, powerless form.
It is this Hulk whom S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to predict will come from the separation and whom they attempt to destroy. Here, Byrne reintroduces agent Clay Quartermain, one of Nick Fury's agents created by comics legend Jim Steranko in Strange Tales who acted as Gamma Base liaison circa Incredible Hulk #187. Samson successfully rescues the Hulk from his planned destruction, thinking that the mindless creature can be studied and perhaps trained to eventually re-enter society as a fully functioning being. Instead, the creature awakens filled with rage, and quickly escapes, in so doing killing a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents tasked with accompanying his transport. Doc Samson's new raison d'être, then, becomes tracking down and killing the Hulk so that he may assuage his own guilt at having released him. And we'll soon find he isn't the only one interested in killing the Green Goliath.
"Battleground," the next story in #316, coalesces a number of threads begun two issues before, beginning with the return of Banner's longtime love Betty Ross, now based visually on Byrne's then-wife Andréa Braun per interviews. This story also brings in Bruce's cousin Jennifer Walters, aka the She-Hulk, a subject of Byrne's fascination from his days on Fantastic Four and with whom he would more closely associate in over two years' worth of stories in The Sensational She-Hulk between 1989 and 1993. It's noteworthy to Hulk historians that Jennifer and Betty's first meeting occurs here, and it's due to the former being Bruce's last living relative to date. They decide to pursue an experimental treatment for the comatose Banner, which succeeds at waking him, preparing him for the next major step in Byrne's journey. At the same time, the Hulk decimates Stoneridge, New Mexico, a situation made worse by the arrival of four of the most powerful Avengers: Iron Man, Hercules, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Wonder Man. They cause even greater destruction to the city during their battle which is broken up by Doc Samson, clad in a new costume, who convinces the Avengers to let him continue alone so that further damages may be avoided. (How this logic train works is anyone's guess.) The battle does result in a promise by Iron Man that, if Samson does not ably deal with the Hulk, he and the Avengers will return in full force--a promise fulfilled by subsequent writer Milgrom in issues #321-323.
Awakened from his coma, Bruce Banner continues to move the mythos in a different direction with issue #317. Some time has passed since the previous issue, during which he has convinced the government to give him a brand-new Gamma Base facility (after the old one was pretty well destroyed in battle with the U-Foes in issue #277). In an inversion of the original dynamic, he assumes control of the base and assembles a team of "New Hulkbusters" to help him track and destroy the creature he spawned. Garbed in red, white and blue outfits that can't help but conjure images of American patriotism, the new Hulkbusters team consists of Craig Saunders, an ex-Army demolitions expert; Hideko Takata, a geophysicist; Armand Martel, a xenobiologist; Carolyn Parmenter, an oceanographer; and Samuel LaRoquette, a survival expert. Betty makes the natural comparison between Banner's new attitude and that of her estranged father, the head of the previous incarnation of Gamma Base, with his new fanaticism toward the Hulk now that they are separate beings. During another battle between Samson and the Hulk which seems perfunctory at best--staged only to show us the Hulk is still out there and still a monster and still causing murder and destruction wherever he goes--the individuals Banner assembled make their decisions to join his team. Meanwhile, Banner makes a major decision it seems he can only consider while the Hulk is gone, proposing to Betty Ross.
The next issue, "Baptism of Fire" (#318), takes place a full two weeks after the last, and further lays the foundation for what would have been Byrne's grand epic even as Betty ponders her answer to Bruce's proposal. In the Amazing Heroes interview, the writer shed light on his perception of Betty as a woman swinging between extremes. One is the woman who "came from this very uptight, very strait-laced background. She was apparently raised by her father, who's this very bullheaded general. Her mother has never been in evidence; I presume she died very early. The other is the Betty Ross who tried to "find herself" out of the shadow of her upbringing, "where we have a lot of adolescent fantasies manifesting themselves on the part of the writers," Byrne says, "having her say 'I'm a liberated woman, so I'm going to grow my hair long, dye it blonde, and wear a slinky dress.'" Since her last appearances during Mantlo's tenure, "she's put herself through the wringer, and now she's coming back, [realizing] that [...] the only rock that she's wanted to tether herself to has been Banner. [...] When Banner and the Hulk are split apart, she perceives this as a chance to go back and say, 'Here I am, Bruce. Let's try it again.'" Originally per the interview, Byrne intended a "talking heads" sequence with Betty at Bruce's bedside while he was comatose, hoping he could stop her in the middle between her two extremes, calling their relationship "[t]he only healthy relationship these two can have." This sequence instead appears late in this issue, between Betty and one of Banner's new Hulkbusters, Hideko Takata, who takes on something of a motherly role. At the end of the issue, Betty agrees to marry Bruce on a page where her reply is the only word.
Of course, to arrive at the answer to Banner's proposal, there's much ground to cover in the rest of the issue, and it begins with the scientist's own analysis of the Hulk and his development throughout the years. For only the second time since the 1960s on-panel and the first time in dialogue, one of Marvel's writers acknowledges the Hulk's original grey skin color and gruff demeanor. (The first occasion was #302, but it's not clear if Mantlo intended the early Hulk to be colored grey, or if it was colorist Bob Sharen's contribution.) Elsewhere, Doc Samson again goes after the emerald behemoth, but only manages to destroy the new Hulkbusters' training robot in the creature's image (tattered purple pants and all). Furious that Samson interrupted their session, they instead took their frustrations out on him, in a battle involving the Hulkbusters manning a large robot. The robot falls, exploding into a ball of flame that kills Parmenter, setting into effect a grudge between Carolyn's ex-lover LaRoquette and Samson. (The real Hulk never actually appears in this issue.)
The wedding of Bruce Banner and Betty Ross is the highlight of the next issue, #319, but the issue would also be noteworthy for being Byrne's last on the regular title. "Member of the Wedding" juxtaposes the event in question with the Hulkbusters' first battle against the Hulk himself. Both events have their crashers; in the case of the Hulk vs. Hulkbusters it's Doc Samson, who thinks Banner and his "hired guns" should stay out of his way or else, while it's disgraced General "Thunderbolt" Ross, in his first appearance since nearly committing suicide in issue #291, who interrupts the Ross-Banner nuptials. Also returning to the Hulk mythos for the first time in over three years is Rick Jones as Banner's best man--and I could think of no other man more fitting for the role due to his long association with Bruce and Betty going all the way back to issue #1. Rick here is quite different from his modern characterization, less the sidekick to heroes like Captain America, Captain Mar-Vell and Rom, and more the golly-gee-whiz Southern boy of Lee-Kirby vintage.
Rick and Bruce's conversation in the middle is intriguing for the picture it paints of Banner himself and the status quo that was to come. Bruce sees the marriage in terms of a mathematical equation, wondering if love is enough to "make the equation positive." Rick tries to make Bruce see that he is now free, but the scientist responds, "Don't you understand, Rick? Fate gave me power. The greatest power seen on this planet in a long, long time. But I was denied the ability to harness that power, to make it work for mankind, instead of against it. As a scientist, I was always fascinated--even during my ordeal--by the mechanism of my transformation into the Hulk. Whenever I had the opportunity, I studied him, trying to learn what was happening, exactly what was happening, within my atomic structure." Then the haunting finish: "I'm almost convinced now that there might have been a way, right from the start, for me to be both Bruce Banner and the Hulk, and be completely in control of both forms." Interestingly, Rick expresses doubts, when in fact he was all for a Hulk with Bruce's intellect during the Mantlo years, wanting Hulk-as-hero so badly he exposed himself to gamma radiation, developing poisoning that eventually led to cancer (which the Beyonder subsequently cured in Rick's appearance immediately before this one). Banner reassures the youth: "Oh, don't distress yourself, Rick. I'm free of the Hulk. I intend to stay that way." Did he really?
After the above exchange, the wedding proceeds until interrupted by "Thunderbolt" Ross, brandishing a gun and calling for an end to the ceremony. To prove his seriousness, he even fires the .45 on Rick. This event, then, is what his daughter Betty finally needs to be able to fully embrace the wedding and all it represents, stating once and for all that she is fed up with being "daddy's little girl" and that she wants her own life, with Bruce, a man who showed her all men were not like the general. To stop her, she says, he must kill her. He collapses in defeat, and before him, the wounded Rick, Hideko and the priest, Bruce Banner and Betty Ross are finally married. Hence they possess a moment of happiness.
The two issues I've not covered so far in this analysis--The Incredible Hulk Annual #14 and Marvel Fanfare #29--fall outside the main arc that I believe John Byrne was trying to build, and as such I find I've very little to actually say about them. The annual, "The Weakness of the Flesh!", is really a classic Hulk tale in a new skin, with the savage, slow-witted Hulk captured by Hubert St. Johns, a scientist, and his team so that they can find out what makes him tick and then transform the scientist into a gamma mutate. Of course, the plan goes horribly wrong, with St. Johns getting his heart's desire but discovering it's not what he believed it would be. He and the others aboard St. Johns' airship perish, including a roomful of failed gamma mutates that the Hulk pummels to mush without trying hard. The issue has the distinction of being the most straightforward Hulk story of perhaps Byrne's entire tenure on the series, with Sal Buscema, recently released from duties on the regular monthly book, returned to draw this special issue, which seems completely apropos.
Meanwhile, "A Terrible Thing to Waste...", the feature in Marvel Fanfare, the high-end format spotlight book in Marvel's line, was Byrne's last story for the publisher for some time, released the month after his last issue of Fantastic Four. Likely the story meant for Incredible Hulk #320, it is told entirely in splash pages. For the first time since his separation from Banner, the Hulk finds himself doing something other than demolishing a town or kicking Doc Samson's ass all over the desert. He befriends someone who appears to be an elderly Native American. The man exposes him to vapors that cause him to hallucinate--"An odd thing," the caption notes, "for a mindless beast to do." The Hulk is attacked by his old foes, Hammer and Anvil, but before much can come of the battle, the Native American shoots Hammer. Because the energy synthecon that links them also links their life forces, Anvil dies also. The Hulk hears the assassin's rallying cry, "Justice is served!" but of course is unaware that the man was the Scourge of the Underworld, responsible for a wave of executions of Marvel's super-villains at the time. He confusedly sees the discarded clothing and mask Scourge wore and, picking up the mask, says one word that casts doubt as to whether this Hulk is truly mindless: "Friend?" It's a spanner in the works in an otherwise unremarkable story that makes me think this story might have been part of a shift away from the themes Byrne was establishing, as perhaps an alternative to what had evidently been shouted down by editorial leading to his hasty departure for DC. Perhaps again, the story was designed to take place earlier in the timeline--but in that case, why the repeated references to a "mindless" Hulk?
Next up, in the third and final entry: I put the whole thing together. Once more, say it with me: "HULKINUED!"
(Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Postscript)